food


Empenadas

We had left Buenos Aires and were in Cordoba when a man there gave us two warnings about Bolivia.  First, he mentioned the crime there, but said there is crime everywhere.  Then he mentioned food, and we thought we were in for the usual lesson about not eating fresh vegetables or street food.  But no, he struggled to describe the food there until we supplied the word for him – hot.  His eyes lit up, and he agreed, “Hot, yes.  The food there is too hot.”  Before Argentina we had spent six months in Mexico, and we both love hot food, so his words were more a promise than a warning, but the fact that an Argentine might think food was a bit too hot and flavourful was not a surprise.

The food in Argentina, particularly in Buenos Aires, was often disappointing, and one of the main reasons for that was it was so limited.  Steak, empanadas, pasta and pizza represent most of the food options easily available to us, at least in the neighbourhood we were in.  The steak was very good but not the best ever (as we’d heard beforehand), the empanadas inconsistent (even in the same restaurant), and the pasta unexciting.  We had read in travel guides that despite a huge influx of Italian immigrants to Argentina long ago, the Italian food options were “boring” and the travel guides were right.  The “exciting” topping on the pizza was ham.  No salami, no pepperoni, nothing but ham and cheese, no matter what pizza place we went to.  Sandwiches, too, were invariably ham and cheese.

They start with good products in Argentina, like some of the best beef anywhere, but they just don’t do much with it.  The steak is nicely cooked to bring out its natural flavour but they don’t put any seasoning on it in most restaurants.  In over a month in Argentina, we saw pepper on the table once.  Really, just one time, in dozens of visits to restaurants.  To give ourselves a little variety, we had hoped to cook some of our own food in Buenos Aires, but when we visited the grocery stores and looked at the spices available, our hearts sank.  There would be literally a total of from 8 to 12 varieties of herbs and spices in a store with a good selection, leaving me to wonder whether Tang would make a good substitute for paprika.

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As we wrap up our final days here in San Miguel de Allende, we wanted to pass on a few of the great restaurants we have enjoyed here. It is not a complete list, but it is our list which means affordable and flavourful.

CHEAP EATS:

Taco stand at Hidalgo and Insurgentes: If you are willing to give street food a try, it doesn’t get any better than this. The stand is up and running by around 7:30 or 8:00 most evenings. We have tried tacos at other places, and nothing can hold a candle to this place. Our favourite choice is an order of Gringas al Pastor. They slice off bits of marinated pork and cook it up on the griddle with a handful of molten Oaxacan cheese all put in a flour tortilla with a sliver of pineapple. The tacos al pastor are excellent, as well. In addition to tacos al pastor, they serve bistec, costilla (rib meat), chorizo and lengua (tongue). I’m sure the other choices are good too, but we are hooked on the gringas al pastor. A gringa al pastor will cost you $15 pesos, and the tacos are about $8 pesos apiece.

The Asador on Potranca on Salida a Celaya: Potranca 4. As with the tacqueria, this place has no name but you can’t miss the huge black grill sitting in front of the restaurant. Arrachera is their specialty, and the hamburguesa de arrachera is very flavourful. Arrechera is a thinly cut, marinated flank steak. I also like their hamburgers and the baked potato con todo: bits of arrachera, cheese and sour cream. We haven’t been there on the weekend, but I believe they offer grilled rib-eyes on Friday and Saturday. The arrachera burger is $40 pesos and the baked potato con todo is $30 pesos. Open for dinner (maybe lunch, too, but we’ve never tried).

Burritacos on Mesones between Hidalgo and Reloj: Once again, not sure of the name of this place, but it is the only place I know of that makes fresh flour tortillas here in San Miguel de Allende. Corn tortillas are far more common in this part of Mexico. You order the number of tacos you want at the counter (I usually get two or three), and then go to the back to choose from about 12 fillings. My favourites are pollo con mole verde (chicken in a green sauce) and papas y chorizo (potatoes and sausage). There are a few tables out front, but we often get the tacos to go and eat them while sitting in the Jardín. A burritaco costs $8 pesos. Open for lunch and (an early) dinner.

BREAKFAST AND LUNCH OPTIONS:

There are loads of options for breakfast and lunch here in San Miguel. The places listed below tend to run between $30 to 70 pesos for a meal.

Cafe Contento: Hernandez Macías 72. The terrace is shady and pleasant and the food is consistently good. Try the crepes with fresh fruit and cajeta (caramel sauce). A scrambled egg breakfast, one of their sandwiches, or the Sopa Azteca are also good options. As a bonus they have a basket full of old New Yorkers and other magazines to browse while you wait for your food. Free wi-fi is available and there is a small collection of paperbacks for sale or trade. Their bread comes from the Buena Vida bakery which is just down the hallway. Stop by Buena Vida to get a cinnamon roll or donut for dessert.

Cafe Buenos Dias: Reloj 64. This place is filled with loyal customers with good reason. The bacon is (almost) always crisp, the cafe latte is the best in town, the waiter is a perfect gentleman, and the owner, Elisa, is always welcoming and friendly. Pat always gets the scrambled egg breakfast and I am very fond of the French toast and the fresh fruit smoothies.

Via Organica: Calle Margarita Ledesmo 2. For breakfast, try their French toast or tapas de huevo (scrambled eggs, beans and cheese served in a puff pastry). For lunch, they have excellent salads. We also like the chicken salad torta and the ham and cheese torta, which come with a small side salad and cost as little as 30 pesos. In addition to the restaurant, Via Organica has a shop with fresh organic produce, handmade local cheeses and other items for sale.

Media Naranja: Hidalgo 83. Another great place for breakfast or lunch. Their salads are excellent (especially with the extra chicken). I recommend the falafel salad with tahini dipping sauce.

Bagel Cafe: Even though it is the Bagel Cafe, our favourite dish is the club sandwich. They also have good chilli. Try the naranjada here. It is a very refreshing drink on a hot day.

Cafe Etc, (or Cafe Juan): Reloj 37. Most people agree that Juan makes the best cappuccino in town. The club sandwich is excellent too. A friend of mine tells me there is a Spanish conversation class that meets here on Monday and Friday at 11:00. The cost of the class is 20 pesos.

Monte Negro: On Correo very close to the Jardín. The food here is always fine, although not spectacular, so it’s not usually our first choice, but it’s always a safe one. The prices are reasonable, the ambience is comfortable, and the salsas are tasty.

Sappos Restaurant: Paseo del Parque 10. The terrace is very pleasant, and the chilaquiles are the best I’ve had in town.

Cafe Rama: Calle Nueva 7. Come here for a special lunch. It is a bit more expensive than some of the other options, but the quality of the food is worth it. Try the Asian Chicken Salad, and make sure to leave room for dessert. The truffles are superb and I hear the lemon cheese cake is a revelation.

Posada Corazon: Aldama 9. Come here to splash out for brunch in a beautiful setting. They have a set menu which is $140 pesos. It is includes 2 cups of coffee, hot chocolate or tea, fruit salad or juice, a main dish such as eggs Benedict, and a buffet of homemade granola, yogurt and artisan cheese. Reservations are recommended.

DINNER IN SAN MIGUEL

Ten Ten Pie al Carbon: Sterling Dickenson 5. It’s a bit off the beaten path, but well worth it. This place has the best arrachera we have tasted since being in Mexico. Perfectly seasoned and always tender. The chicken kebabs are also excellent. You will not be disappointed. Margarita, the manager, is always gracious and kind. The last time we were there, she plucked pomegranates off of a tree in the courtyard and shared them with the customers for a refreshing dessert.

Longhorn Smokehouse: Salida a Celaya 6. This is the place to go in San Miguel for Texas-style barbecue. The grilled ribs are quite good, but our favourite choice is a cheeseburger and a side of fresh cut fries. Thursday is steak night. They also have key lime pie that is worth saving a little extra room for. As a bonus, the waitress there (Jimena) is very friendly and charming.

Burrito Bistro: Correo 45. We love the fresh roasted salsas, and they make a delicious naranjada. We have liked everything we have tried on the menu, but our favourites are the grilled chicken salad, the thai chicken soup, and the grilled chicken burrito.

Gombo’s: Tata Nacho 2. Come here for the pepperoni pizza.

Fenicia: Calle Zacateros 73. Great Lebanese food. The chicken shawerma wrap is especially good.

Mare Nostrum: Umaran 56. Run by a Sicilian couple, the pastas are handmade and delicious. The last time I was there I had mushroom-stuffed ravioli with a sweet potato sauce. It was wonderful. Rumor has it the pizzas are good too.

Chinese food: DondayinSMA has a great post about the two Chinese restaurants here in San Miguel.

BITS AND BOBS

Ice Cream:
On the corner of San Francisco and Reloj is Dolphy’s Ice Cream, a Mexican ice cream chain. They use real cream and have about 20 flavors to choose from.

As you head south on Ancha San Antonio, you’ll find Santa Clara Ice Cream, another high quality creamy ice cream. Menta con chispas in my favourite.

For a taste of real Mexican ice cream, go to the ice cream stand at the corner of Canal and Hernandez Macías. I highly recommend the sorbets. Limón and Mango are my favourite. If you are feeling adventurous they have queso (cheese), mamey (a fruit with a sweet potato-like flavour) and rose flavours on offer.

Fresh Fruit and Vegetables: My favourite place to go to for fresh fruit and vegetables in San Miguel is in the Mercado Ignacio Ramirez. DondayinSMA is also fond of this particular stall. See his post for details.

After our time in Zipolite, we headed for the city of Oaxaca.  To get there, we took a 20 minute taxi ride to Pochutla where we caught a bus north.  Unfortunately, the information at the Lyoban Hostel in Zipolite was not accurate, so we got to the bus station about an hour earlier than necessary, and the only buses available until that night were second class buses.  First class buses in Mexico are pretty plush, sometimes with only three seat across (two on one side, one on the other), with drinks, snacks, and a bathroom.  Second class buses, while generally okay (though far less comfortable overall), don’t have a bathroom.  The bus stopped only once, after about 2.5 hours, so we had nearly 6 hours on the bus without a break or a bathroom.  Bring your Depends.

This was our first trip to Oaxaca, and with only a couple of days to see it, we know we’ll be back.  Oaxaca is known for its food, especially its mole (pronounced MOE-lay), so we decided to take a cooking class at Casa Crespo.  There we were joined by another cooking student, Zack, from New Mexico, and our teacher, Oscar.  Oscar listed our choices and we settled on Mango agua fresca, salsa roja, salsa verde, guacamole, quesadillas con flor de calabaza, sopa azteca, rajas con queso y crema, fruit mole on chicken, and chocolate ice cream.  Oscar walked us to a nearby market where we bought many of the ingredients, and even tried the dried grasshoppers (very salty).

Market vendor - Oaxaca

Back at his cooking school, Oscar took us through the steps of preparing everything from our tortillas to the ice cream.  Oscar was a fantastic teacher, and the food was incredibly good, especially the fruit mole and chocolate ice cream (which was also surprisingly easy).

Making guacamole at Casa Crespo

We stayed in a hostel in Oaxaca, and there we met Jan and Elsie, two Englishwomen, both retired pub owners.  They are on a 7 month trip through the Americas and the Caribbean and have some amazing stories about their adventures.  To give you just a hint about them, just last year Elsie did a pole dance in a club in Thailand in front of an ever-growing crowd on the street outside.  This is particularly remarkable when you realize Elsie is 75, and Jan 60.  They’ve been taking these long trips abroad for 14 years.  We’re thinking of starting a fan club.

Mexico City was next on our schedule, and Amy and I had been there before, though it was Ciara’s first time (aside from arriving in Mexico City late Sunday and flying out to Zipolite early the next morning).  We saw Frida Kahlo’s former house, now a museum called Casa Azul, and well worth a visit.  We also went to the National Museum of Anthropology and the Zocalo, or main square in Mexico City.  The highlight of the trip was when Ciara took a picture of a clown performing for kids, and we ended up as part of the show.

Ciara and the clown

First I was offered two Mexican women for Amy and Ciara, and then the clown invited Ciara to join the kids.  The clown had the kids dance to either Michael Jackson or Shania Twain, and he found a dance partner for Ciara.  More than an hour later we were still there, watching Ciara and the others.  Not exactly what we expected but a memorable experience, to say the least.

In honor of St. Patrick’s Day, Amy and I plan check out the Irish pub in town for the first time tonight.  We’ve generally avoided going to Irish pubs outside Ireland because we fear they won’t really be much like the real thing.  Sometimes it can be easy to tell when the pub owners really don’t have a clue, such as with the pub in Madrid that had a nice window display on Prince Charles and Princess Diana.

Instead of going to a pub we could cook ourselves an Irish meal, but just what would that be?  I just read  Francis Lam’s article “St. Patrick’s Day controversy:  Is corned beef and cabbage Irish?” and the article makes clear some things we already knew:  corned beef really isn’t so much Irish as Irish-American, and food is not central to Irish culture.  When we lived in Cork, we were rarely invited to people’s homes for dinner and instead socialized in pubs.  We were invited to the house of our friends Denise and Michael for an Irish meal once, and it consisted of bacon (Americans would probably call it boiled ham), potatoes, cabbage, boiled turnips, and mushy peas.  The food was great, the boiled turnips surprisingly so, though I don’t think I’ll ever be a great fan of mushy peas.  There was no corned beef to be seen.

Food plays a much more central role here in Mexico.  During our Mexican cooking class, our Spanish-language teacher, Eli, said that the women who would be teaching us cooked in the same way as he remembered from his childhood, with love.  The cooks here really do seem to care more about the food they make, and how it’s accepted.  Last night, we went out to eat and Amy left a little soup in her bowl while I left a few scraps on my plate.  The cook came out and asked us if everything was okay, and seemed a bit concerned that we hadn’t eaten every last bite.  We know how to say we’re full in Spanish, which is useful, because cooks seem almost hurt if food is left on the plate.  This was even more true in Mexico City.

In Ireland it was nearly impossible to go to a restaurant that served “Irish food,” though many pubs had a carvery lunch on Sundays, which seemed to consist of a meat and two veg, usually boiled.  In Mexico, most of the restaurants serve Mexican food, and we eat at our favorite taqueria two or sometimes even three times a week.  That’s as it should be, though – gringas de pastor beat mushy peas any day of the week.

There are two permanent indoor markets here in San Miguel:  The Mercado Ignacio Ramirez is located in Centro and the Mercado de San Juan de Dios is a few blocks outside of Centro towards the bus station.  We frequently do our shopping for meat and vegetables at the Mercado Ignacio Ramirez, and one of our favorite lunch spots is found in the Mercado de San Juan de Dios.

Mercado Ignacio Ramirez

The biggest (and in my opinion the best) market in San Miguel is the Tianguis del Martes or Tuesday Market.  It is huge, crowded, overwhelming, and exciting.  Need some fresh papaya, oranges, or chayote?  No problem.  How about a remote for you television?  No problem.  A new (or used) pair of underwear?  A slotted spoon?  A pirated DVD? A rusty dull knife?  Table and chairs?  No problem.  The market has it all.

Baskets at the Tuesday Market

Fresh produce at the market

In addition to chock-a-block stalls, there are people wandering the aisles with new mop heads, racks of shoe laces, and woolen shawls for sale.  Shouting over the chatter of the crowds are the men hawking their wares, sometimes with a megaphone for extra emphasis.

And then there is the food.  Pat and I experience our travels primarily by walking through the various neighborhoods and by eating the local food.  One cannot completely experience Mexican cuisine unless you are willing to try some of the local street food.  Not only is it economical, but it is often much more flavorful.  In an effort to stay relatively healthy, we try to patronize places that are busy and where we can see the food being cooked in front of us.

I don’t know the name of our current favorite place to eat when we are at El Tianguis.  You just have to remember which section of the market they are in and look for the women’s bright orange aprons.

Carnitas at the Tuesday Market

Their specialty is tacos de carnitas (pork), and they are quite tasty – especially with the fresh shredded cabbage, salsa and homemade guacamole.  The first time we ate there, I was asked if I wanted my meat seca o con grasa, and I said con grasa.  I didn’t know what it meant but seca (dry) sounded boring.  She also asked if I wanted it surtido, and again I said yes not knowing what surtido meant.  When the plate arrived, I realized that con grasa meant with fat.  It took a bit of work to separate the meat from the fat, but it was moist and delicious.  I didn’t find out what surtido meant until I ran across it a few days later while reading David Lida’s book, First Stop in the New World.  According to Lida, surtido means that you are getting a mix of pork product, which could include organ meat and who knows what else.  With this new-found knowledge, the next week I ordered our meat blanca y seca (white and dry).  It was still good, but not as flavorful as it had been the week before.

There are many other tempting options for lunch at El Tianguis, and I am sure that someday I’ll try them.  But for now I can’t get enough of tacos de carnitas surtido y con un poco grasa.

Tepache at the Tuesday Market

Two weeks ago while wandering about the Tuesday Market, I noticed a woman scooping out a dark brownish-orange liquid from a bright orange barrel.  A pineapple was painted on the barrel along with the word Tepache.  I jotted down the name and Googled it when I got home that afternoon.

From what I can gather, Tepache seems to be a poor-man’s drink.  It is made from the skins and core of the pineapple and is mixed with water, lots of coarse brown sugar, cinnamon, and cloves.  Then it is allowed to sit for about 3 days until it starts to ferment, making a sort of mild pineapple beer.

I was intrigued.  I love pineapple agua fresca, so I thought this might be an interesting drink to try.  Unfortunately, when I returned to the market the following week I wasn’t able to find the Tepache vendor.  The Tuesday Market is huge, and to my gringa eye it is difficult to differentiate one section from the next.

My Tepache quest paid off this week, though.  As I wandered around the middle section of the market I saw a bright orange barrel with several glasses of Tepache sitting out ready to be enjoyed.  The drink was garnished with chilli powder and lime juice before being handed off to me.  I wish I could tell you that it was the most delicious drink I have ever had, but to be honest it was a bit disappointing.  It was overwhelmingly sweet, and I couldn’t really appreciate the essence of pineapple at all.  Despite being a bit of a letdown, I don’t have any regrets about trying it.  I doubt I’ll be drinking it again, though.

Today Pat and I had a combined cooking and Spanish class.  The two of us along with about ten other people assembled at Eli’s (The Spanish Guru) home at 10:00 this morning.  We learned the words for such cooking terms as:  ladle, skillet, grill, and teaspoon full.  And we also learned how to say things like: It smells delicious!;  How flavourful; and I’m full.

Adela and Eli

Adela, our cooking teacher, is a primary school teacher by trade.  I am pretty sure that school teachers make a pittance of a salary, so several months ago Adela decided to open up a small restaurant in her home to earn some extra income.  She would wake up at 5:00 in the morning and start preparing the food for that day’s menu (typically three different main dishes to choose from along with rice, corn tortillas, salsa and beans).  She left the rest of the cooking responsibility to her assistant, Vicky, and then she would head off to school to teach.   After school, Adela would return home and continue working in her restaurant until around 7:00 each night – six days a week.   As you can imagine she was exhausted.

She and our Spanish teacher Eli have been talking about trying to do a collaborative Spanish language and Mexican cooking class and today was their first effort.  I think it was a hit, and hopefully it will continue.  Not only was the food delicious but if this cooking class venture is a success it will mean that Adela won’t have to put in 14 hours a day to make ends meet.

The Raw Ingredients

Amy getting advice from the chef

Adela's assistant, Vicky, preparing the rice

Here is what we learned to make today:

Guacamole

Salsa Verde

Jicama, Carrot, Pineapple, and Sesame Seed Salad

Mexican Rice

Chiles Rellenos stuffed with spiced beef

Basil Agua Fresca

Que Ricisimo!  Everything was delicious.  If you are in San Miguel de Allende, do sign up for this class.    Eli tells me that Enchiladas with Mole sauce and several Mexican desserts are on the menu for the next time.

Adela, our cooking teacher, is a primary school teacher by trade.  I am pretty sure that school teachers make a pittance of a salary, so several months ago Adela decided to open up a small restaurant in her home to earn some extra income.  She would wake up at 5:00 in the morning and start preparing the food for that day’s menu (typically three different main dishes to choose from along with rice, corn tortillas, salsa and beans).  She left the rest of the cooking responsibility to her assistant, Vicky, and then she would head off to school to teach.   After school, Adela would return home and continue working in her restaurant until around 7:00 each night – six days a week.   As you can imagine she was exhausted.

She and our Spanish teacher Eli have been talking about trying to do a collaborative Spanish language and Mexican cooking class and today was their first effort.  I think it was a hit, and hopefully it will continue.

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